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Leading in a VUCA World - How Do We Train People For An Era Of Uncertainty?

13/09/2017 14:46 BST | Updated 13/09/2017 14:46 BST

The American defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's spoke during a press conference in 2002 (in)famously about the 'known and unknown unknowns'. This might not immediately seem relevant to education but actually it is of fundamental significance.

We live in a VUCA world, many management articles tend to point out, which demands a lot of leaders at all levels in society. VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of general conditions and situations) is a term that emerged from the US army after the first Gulf war. Rumfeld's quote dates from the second Gulf war. What does all this mean for education?

Different types of education prepare for different types of careers and this is linked to the reality of the working world. Or at least: how we think it might look in the decades to come. So how well prepared are the graduates of today for such a VUCA world? Or to put it differently, how do you pick an education that prepares you for the VUCA reality of tomorrow?

Vocational education is focused on acquiring skills. It enables a graduate to do a specific job, like nursing or IT. The same more or less applies to professional education which prepares for specific professions, whether accountant, lawyer, or even medical doctor. Evidence suggests that those with vocational and especially professional education have relatively easier access to the labour market and earn a relatively higher salary, than those with a broader education.

Those who opt for an education less linked to a vocation/profession often find it more difficult to reach that first step on the career ladder, and have to compromise in terms of starting salaries. But they tend to make up for the slower career start by showing their worth. Interestingly, because of their more generic skills and knowledge, after a few years they progress more rapidly in terms of career and salary.

The reason for this might be the VUCA reality of the modern world. Those with a broader education tend to be better equipped to deal with the unexpected. It seems they tend to have a more adventurous mind set, have developed a more diverse managerial tool set, and are better prepared for the challenges posed by volatility.

Of course, this does not mean that one should forget about vocational or professional education, actually the implied message is different. Those who have opted for vocational and professional routes know that the world is continuously changing, and in order to stay at the cutting edge of their profession they have to update their knowledge and skills regularly.

Their study prepared them for the known and during their careers, continuous education allows them to tackle the known unknowns successfully. In many professions, like medical or legal, continuous study is compulsory which is reassuring for patients and clients.

Besides being able to deal with known unknowns, postgraduate education also enables those with a professional background to broaden their skill set, making it easier to tackle the many unknown unknowns produced by a VUCA world.

A classic example of this is the MBA. Originally designed for high potentials who move from profession and specialisations into more generic management positions, the MBA has become a more widely accessible degree to give postgraduates a wider perspective and a richer tool kit to successfully tackle the issues of a rapidly changing, almost capricious modern society.

Of course the same type of route is available for those doing a broader first degree, then opting at postgraduate level for their vocation or profession. The American system (liberal arts before eg medical or legal degrees) is more attuned to that reality. Though it might lengthen the education, the grounding is more solid.

A major flaw in much of our tertiary education is that typically it tends to perceive a master's degree primarily as a further specialisation of the chosen bachelor degree. The so-called Bologna process of the late nineties - that restructured tertiary education around Europe - was heavily biased towards what I believe to be a misconception.

In some countries the bachelor's is still seen as a premature exit of a 'proper' degree path that leads seamlessly in progressing stages of specialisation from bachelor's to master's to doctorate. I am not saying this is wrong as such. In fact I more or less followed that path myself as it is almost required for an academic career. But in a VUCA world the real demand is for people who are not only confident dealing with the known unknowns but especially with the unknown unknowns.

We need more degrees that allow for a matching - in whatever order - of specialist and broad degrees. We need more professional 'conversion' degrees for those who come with a more generic first degree, and equally more MBA degrees for those with a specialist background to enable them to deal better with the higher level society demands.

Contrary to what one might think, VUCA and a world of unknown unknowns does not need to be scary, it is actually full of opportunities and excitement. But one does need to be well prepared through an education that is fit for purpose.

Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen is an economic historian and Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS) and Rector at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF).